Tuesday, June 14, 2022

"A Jewish Refugee in New York"

A Jewish Refugee in New York: A Novel, by Kadya Molodovsky is a new translation from a serialized Yiddish publication that ran in the New York Yiddish newspaper Morgn-zhurnal (Morning journal), beginning in 1941. It consists of the entries of a fictitious journal of a girl called Rivke Zilberg. She relates the first 10 months of her life in New York, between December, 1939, and October, 1940. Rivke had escaped from Lublin, where the Nazis were just beginning to execute their plan to destroy the Jewish communities and their residents in Eastern Europe. She lives first with her aunt and uncle, and then with generous strangers who help her find work and some independence.

A question that has troubled me all my life is this: How much did American Jews know about what was happening to the Jews in Europe during the war? Over time, I have learned that from the earliest days of the war, there was no mystery about the ongoing destruction of Jewish life there. This book makes that perfectly clear. 

Often, I also wonder what was life like for a "greenhorn" -- the mocking term which the more assimilated Jews applied to newcomers. My mother's family arrived in the US in 1905, and she was born a few years later, and went to American school from kindergarten through college. So she was never subject to this treatment, but her sisters remembered the arrival of their cousins in the early 1920s. Their adjustment was swift but it must have been painful. In the 1990s, one of the immigrant sisters still complained because she said someone treated her "like a greenhorn."

A Jewish Refugee in New York offers a variety of insights into the thoughts and experiences of a refugee from Hitler as she joins an assimilated community and tries to learn English and not be a burden to others. Rivka's journal entries tell a fascinating story. After all these years, this book has just been translated for the first time by Anita Norich, who says: "It is the story of a young woman shaped by historical crises, trying to make sense of her place in a bewildering, threatening world." (Kadya Molodovsky. A Jewish Refugee in New York: A Novel, p. vii). 

Rather than reviewing the book, I'm going to quote passages that make clear how it illuminates the life of a 20-year-old woman.

Far away from New York: Quotes from A Jewish Refugee in New York

"Today, I read in the newspaper about what is being done to Jews in Lublin. Even though I already knew about it earlier, it was upsetting. Yesterday I dreamed that I saw my brother Mikhl standing deathly pale, and suddenly he jumped wildly as if he was in great pain."  (pp. 24-25). 

"My father writes that he’s living at Krasulye’s and Krasulye is no more. I received the letter this morning and read it aloud to my aunt and uncle. My aunt said, 'So, thank God, at least they have a roof over their heads!' She thought that Krasulye was someone’s name, but when I told her that it was the name of our cow and that my father and brother were now living in Krasulye’s shed, she stopped thanking God. I wept uncontrollably. The letter was mailed in January, in the coldest weather. Where are they living now? And what’s happened to our home? Has it burned down? Did the Germans take it away? Who knows?" (p. 47). 

"I dreamt about my father last night. He was lying in Krasulye’s stall, on the ground, with his back against the wall, and I saw how cold he was, how he held his hands under a mound of straw. It tugged at my heart, and I jumped up wide awake." (p. 50).

"I want to know what’s happening in Lublin. What’s happening with my father and brother? The newspapers say that they’re sending all the young men away to be slaves in Germany." (p. 98). 

"I was at the wedding, but I was seeing Lublin, my father in Krasulye’s stall, Chatskel, and poor, blind Janet [other relatives who had not escaped Europe]. It was as if they were all standing near me, behind a curtain." (p. 171). 

American Life from A Jewish Refugee in New York

"Everybody says something different about America. The laundress says you have to take America with aspirin in the beginning, and Mendl Pushcart says that you can’t take the measure of your headache here. Maybe he’s right. Should I be upset just because I’m tired? Maybe it’s all not so hard. I just thought . . . and then my heart ached again because I saw how alone I was on Grand Street. Will I be able to bear it? What will become of me? I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know anything." ( p. 101).

"Awlriyt is the kind of word that always comes in handy. Awlriyt means good. But if you say it twice—awlriyt, awlriyt—it means leave me alone! Enough already! Awlriyt also means I understand you fully. And that must have been what Eddie’s awlriyt meant." (p. 90). 

"So, despite the fact that my grandfather, Reb Mottele, lived in the forest near Lublin, and despite the fact that he’s been dead for about ten years, and even despite the fact that he probably never gave a single thought to New York, he’s still more important in New York than I am, even though I’m already able to ride the subway. Rebbe Finkl and Mrs. Rubin both thought it mattered a great deal that I was Reb Mottele Zilberg’s grandchild." (p. 120). 

Food in A Jewish Refugee in New York

"My aunt made blintzes for Shavuos." (p. 131).

"When I got home, I found my aunt pickling herring. The smell of vinegar and cloves was all over the apartment. It smelled like Purim." (p. 50).

"All of New York called us up on the phone because of the Purim ball. My aunt heads the table committee, so the phone never stopped ringing. Mrs. Rabkin, the new vice president, called up to say that she had a kayk, and what a kayk. She didn’t say what she meant by 'what a cake.' All she said was, 'You have to see it.' Mrs. Erlich called to say that she was bringing fifty hamantaschen and a poppy seed cake to the ball. She also reported that Mrs. Rubin had gotten a hundred bottles of Coca-Cola. Mrs. Sunshine called to say that she had twelve bottles of Carmel wine." (p. 55). 

"We drank a few cups of coffee, and I ate the sendvitch she offered me. I’m not so fond of eating sandwiches. As soon as I try to take a bite, either cheese or salami or some other filling falls out. Americans make a big deal of a sendvitch, but I think of it as three separate things that should remain separate." (p. 30). 

"No matter what’s going on, there are sendvitches. It’s really something, these sandwiches. You can always find them on a walk, at a party, or at a wedding. We had dairy sandwiches and meat ones. Mrs. Shore made two cheese sandwiches, so my aunt made two with chopped liver. Mrs. Shore made two with eggs, so my aunt made two with salami. Mrs. Shore made two with herring, so my aunt made two with chicken. Mrs. Shore made two with lox, so my aunt made two with meatloaf. Mrs. Shore made two with mayonnaise and green peppers, so my aunt made two with chicken gizzards. And whether the sandwich was dairy or meat, every one came with half a cucumber covered in salt. I looked at that mountain of sandwiches and saw Chatskel and Janet  before me, dragging themselves around who knows where and who knows how long it’s been since they’ve had any food in their mouths." (p. 139). 

A neighbor tells Rivke: “When my Harry gets a little crazy, it doesn’t matter to him who he fights with. He just has to find an enemee. He fights with whoever he finds.... Do you know what I do then? I make potato pancakes! My Harry really likes them. No matter how angry he is, if I bring in a plate of potato pancakes, he makes up with his enemee right away. I don’t know how we’d live if there were no potato pancakes in the world." (p. 42). 


Remember: A Jewish Refugee in New York was published at the very beginning of World War II, long before many the worst atrocities of the Holocaust happened, and before many other more famous Holocaust books were written! If you have been reading recently published novels that try to create a "feel good" attitude towards the Holocaust or purporting to create moral lessons from the fate of the Jews, you might consider reading A Jewish Refugee in New York -- or even consider reading a real first-hand account of life and death in wartime Europe. For more on this, see Dara Horn's book People Love Dead Jews, which I reviewed here.

Blog post © 2022, mae sander.
uotes from A Jewish Refugee in New York as attributed.


gluten Free A_Z Blog said...

Thank you for this interesting review of a time that many of our parents or grandparents can relate to. My grandparents escaped programs and were immigrants in the early 1900's. My mother was born in Brooklyn in 1908. They lived ins such a "Jewish/Yiddish neighborhood that I never heard her speak of discrimination by the locals. I now live (6 months of the year) in a high rise in Florida that was originally founded by Holocaust survivors. Now their 70 year old children own the units. They are a tight group and refer to themselves as "Greenies". Most of them live in Toronto, Canada .

DVArtist said...

This is a brilliant review. I love reading your thoughts on the many different books your read. Thank you.

Laurie said...

What an amazing post you have written and written so beautifully. That’s one thing we always know when we come to visit you, we will be given the absolute best book reviews. I feel I’ve learned so much today, thank you my friend❤️👍

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

There is something about reading a book written near to the time depicted in a book that makes it especially good. The details are just right. The characters seem genuine. The setting feels real. So these books are like a close look at the past as it really was.

Iris Flavia said...

A subject certainly very tough for a German.
I will never ever understand why people cannot simply accept each other, live in peace side by side and learn from each other (except when you mistreat some in the name of religion).
Dunno if I said this before, at age 14 they forced us to say, "I am sorry for what I did to the Jewish people". My parents were kids and my Grandparents not involved/not even German when all the madness took place.

But I agree. We need books like this.

eileeninmd said...

Sounds like an interesting read, thanks for the review.
Take care, have a happy day!

David M. Gascoigne, said...

There is much to ponder in this beautifully written review, Mae, and I would urge everyone to fully and honestly acquaint themselves with the events of the Holocaust and the pervasive propaganda that led up to it. Yad Vashem covers a whole range of topics on line, and there are free courses one may take. Current trends in the United States must be particularly troubling to Jews. With my very best wishes, David

Jeanie said...

I'm always fascinated by assimilation and I think this book would be extremely interesting because of the historical context. We all know what is to come and I've probably read far more on that subject in general but the actual assimilation is a bit of a mystery. I know not all were welcome with open arms but what must it have been like. I'm very intrigued by this book and may have to order it. (I agree with her completely on most sandwiches -- three things that are best eaten separately! There are exceptions, but overall, she nailed it!)

Kitchen Riffs said...

Terrific review! This sounds interesting. Lately I've been reading some WWII history (not military history -- social and political history), and this would fit right in with my current interests. Thanks!

Velva- Evening with a Sandwich said...

Growing up on Miami Beach with a large Orthodox Jewish population, I have always been fascinated. Many of the Jews who came to Miami Beach were brought by family members after WWII. It was not uncommon to recognize the ID # tattooed on their forearm from the concentration camps. I love reading Jewish history. This book is on my list. I know I would enjoy reading it.
Thanks for sharing with us.


H.R. Bennett said...

Reading this triggered a long buried memory. I think I actually read this back in High School. The teacher brought in Bagels while we talked.

Mae Travels said...

@H.R.Bennett -- This recently published version of the novel is the first time it was translated into English. Previous versions were in Yiddish, and it's been out of print since the 1940s. If you read it in high school, it would have been in Yiddish, which of course is possible, but you didn't say so.

... mae

Tandy | Lavender and Lime (http://tandysinclair.com) said...

My grandmother must have been grateful to have come to America, speaking English, and already married. Her memories of the Nazis was so bad she would leave the room if they were depicted on television. She never shared them though.

Tina said...

That is a wonderful review and I liked reading about the food. Judee's comment was also interesting.